The IPL 2023 final, midway through the Chennai Super Kings’ run chase, did not seem destined to be a classic. For most of the second half, it appeared the occasion might serve simply as a coronation for Hardik Pandya, as the Gujarat Titans tightened the screws with wickets at regular intervals. But suddenly, in the last leg of the final, which was spread over three days due to intermittent rain delays, both teams swung at each other as if they were exhausted boxers in the final rounds of a championship bout. Then at 1:35 am, Mohit Sharma missed two attempted yorkers by inches. Ravindra Jadeja dismissed the first for a six and the second for a four to seal a record-equalling and emotional fifth title for CSK.
The fact that the winning runs came off the bat of Jadeja, who had stormed off midway through last year’s IPL, apparently upset by Dhoni’s remarks against his captaincy, made the moment sweeter. Jadeja, in fact, was one of the pillars of CSK’s comeback title win after a disappointing ninth-place finish last season. The all-rounder was Dhoni’s crisis man with the ball, especially while playing at home. Jadeja snapped up 11 wickets at the M.A. Chidambaram Stadium at an average of 16.45 and an economy rate of 6.7, and in the process glossed over whatever challenges CSK’s main spinner, Maheesh Theekshana, faced in a middling season.
Jadeja’s favourable matchup against right-handers meant he got rid of them 12 times at an average of 16.91 and an economy rate of 6.65. He also dismissed left-handers eight times at an average of under 30 and an economy of 8.60. While he had a relatively quiet season with the bat, Jadeja’s six-ball 15 in the final ultimately proved to be the difference between ecstasy and despair for CSK.
That said, the story of CSK’s metamorphosis this season contains several key characters and a combination of small, key moments that together have enabled Dhoni’s men to embrace free-spirited cricket. Ajinkya Rahane and Shivam Dube formed the spine of CSK’s middle order. Rahane struck at a mind-boggling 232.39 against pace bowlers in this IPL, smashing 165 off just 71 balls while being dismissed only twice. Rahane’s 27-ball 61 against the Mumbai Indians at the Wankhede Stadium early in the season ended a wretched spell that had seen the right-hander go without an IPL fifty since 2020 and without a Test in over 12 months.
On the other hand, Shivam Dube was used as a spin-hitter, striking at 176.47 and smashing 22 sixes. The left-hander was instrumental in taking down the Titans’ key wicket-taker, Rashid Khan, in the final, smashing him for two consecutive sixes to bring CSK back into the game. Head coach Stephen Fleming had weighed in on Dube’s promotion in the batting order. “To bring Dube up and use him in an aggressive role took a few games,” Fleming said. “We were unsure, but he played a defining innings against RCB [in Bengaluru, where he scored 52 off 27], where he really stamped his authority, and from there, he was sort of a catalyst for us through those middle overs. With the Impact Player, that’s what was needed.”
On the bowling front, CSK initially struggled due to an injury to its pace spearhead, Deepak Chahar. It began the season without Dwayne Bravo, who had been a death-overs specialist for the team since 2011 and was the highest wicket-taker in the IPL until recently. But Dhoni’s backing of young Sri Lankan quick Matheesha Pathirana turned out to be a masterstroke. Pathirana, with his unusual round-arm action, bowled consistently at the death, picking up 18 wickets at an economy rate of 8.01. The 21-year-old coupled his pacy yorkers with dipping slower balls to deceive the batters.
To play high-tempo, high-risk cricket, you also need a management group that backs you 100 per cent. And process and trust are the buzzwords the CSK brains trust operates on. “A part of it is to do with how we finish a bad season. We’re always looking for the positives, giving players opportunities that we can work into the following year; we don’t write it off. There are a lot of things to learn when a season goes well, but equally, there are a lot more things to learn when it doesn’t. So, we’re always looking to get better,” Fleming had said ahead of this year’s final.
And tying all this together was the talismanic skipper, Dhoni. Crushing disappointment makes you stronger. Dhoni had been there before. Three years ago, the then three-time champion had become the first team to be eliminated from the playoff race. Dhoni, the batter, also had his worst IPL that year as he managed just 200 runs in 12 innings at a strike rate of 116. Dhoni had then pointed out the need for an overhaul of the squad, including building a new core group of players.
The following season saw the emergence of Ruturaj Gaikwad, who played his first full season for CSK and won the Orange Cap, amassing 635 runs in 16 innings with four fifties and a hundred. The Super Kings eventually won their fourth title in 2021, and in Gaikwad, they found an opener who married technique with power.
The Maharashtra batter formed a fruitful alliance with Devon Conway this year, racking up 849 runs in 15 innings to be the second-most successful opening pair of the IPL 2023.
This is not to say there were no questions about these players. But in the few decisive games, they overcame concerns and delivered what was required. CSK’s selection strategy — taking the laissez-faire route and making as few changes as possible — paid off in the end and handed the side its seventh title in all T20 tournaments (5 IPL and 2 Champions League).